Fifty-Four - Ira

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At the crack of dawn, I woke Stuart up to go to the lake with me. I explained that I wanted to go for a swim but since I didn't have a waterproof watch, I needed someone to keep time.

"You're crazy," the psychiatrist diagnosed me before promptly falling back asleep.

I rolled my eyes, considering trying Linkin instead, but the memory of her and Thierry in that room together made me shake my head. I shook Stuart's shoulder, more forcefully this time. "Not even a walk?" When he turned the other way, I sighed. "Fine, I'll go swimming by myself, but not my fault if something happens because nobody was on the lookout."

That woke him up. "Ira, don't be stupid." Stuart turned back around to face me, propping himself up on an elbow.

"I'm not." I stuck my hands annoyingly at the top of my hips. "Which is why you're getting dressed and meeting me downstairs in five minutes."

It took him longer than ten to make it down, and he looked like he was in a different country. "What?" Stuart said, tugging at the hems of his jacket. "It's cold and foggy. Are you sure you want to get in the water?"

"It's not cold," I said, suddenly self-conscious in my t-shirt and shorts and towel around my shoulders. I fetched a loose jacket from the stairwell. "Better?"

"Show-off." Stuart smiled, opening the balcony door.

"Just Siberian." My running shoes made the wooden boards squeak as we headed down the stairs to the lake and surrounding forest. It was my favourite part of the property, and although heading out here with Thierry every night was still a little stressful, I felt free surrounded by quiet nature.

"So why the cold swims?" Stuart asked, a smile still hanging on his face. "We won't be swimming to the island, that's for sure."

I shook my head, still surprised when blonde hair flew in front of my eyes and not brown. "You're going to say I have serious issues."

"That's unprofessional phrasing."

"Well, then." I shrugged. "I just want to one-up Celestia, because she almost killed me. So, if she ever tries that again, I can stay alive long enough to—"

"You're shaking," Stuart said, reaching out to touch my arm.

"I know— No, I didn't know—" I also noticed that my fists were clenched, halfway consumed by the sleeves of my jacket.

"Ira, you'll be okay." Stuart pulled me into a hug. The layers he wore were like warm rugs, and he rubbed circles into my back until my breaths slowed. Feeling sleepier being calm, I pulled away but stayed close enough for Stuart to run a hand through my hair. "It won't happen again."

"Yeah." I sighed, looking at the smooth surface of the lake. The water was a dark grey and the reeds were shrouded in mist. The ominous sight made me smile and reach around Stuart's shoulders. "Let's go get them." I pulled out the small gun that Thierry had given me and passed it to Stuart.

His eyes widened in alarm. "Uh, I—"

"Just in case," I reassured him, before showing him the basics in less than ten seconds. I didn't think he understood, but I moved on. "I mainly just want you to keep time."

"Okay." Stuart looked nervously between the gun and the water before fishing a phone out of his pocket with his free hand. "Tell me when to go."

I swiftly took off my clothes and threw them on the ground, leaving myself in a one-piece swimsuit. It was one that I'd picked after a lot of research in New York; it was streamlined for function and covered most of my back and chest. I didn't wait for Stuart to say anything before jumping in the cool water, though I wish I had. "Start when I go underwater, stop when I come up for air," I shouted and waved to Stuart, clenching my muscles to not let my shivering show. Goosebumps were already creeping up my skin. When Stuart nodded, I swam towards the horizon. I kicked myself deeper into the dark lake, feeling the bubbles from my long exhale stroking my cheeks. I swam until my lungs were bursting.

"Forty-two seconds," Stuart announced when I was back at shore.

I shook my head, wiping water from my face. "Let's go again." It was impossible to break fifty this morning, and Stuart was almost begging me to go back inside by my tenth lap. My time underwater steadily decreased, and my growing frustration was my only shield against the cold water.

"Come on, Ira." Stuart stretched out his hand, squatting by the lake's edge with the pistol by his feet.

"One last time," I said, my jaw trembling. With shallow breaths, I looked at Stuart, who sighed but otherwise remained silent. "Help me?"

He stared at me. "Why don't I think I'll want to?"

"You won't, but please?" I didn't give him a chance to respond. "I want you to hold me underwater, and not let me come up. I'll tap your hand when I really need to breathe."

"Ira, I'm not going to try and drown you." Stuart wavered.

"Just once, and we'll go." I grabbed his hand and placed it behind my neck. It was almost warm enough to convince me to leave.

Stuart looked at the growing light on the horizon behind me before rolling up his sleeves and saying, "Fine."

"Three, two, one," I said before letting Stuart lean over and force my head down. I held my breath without letting any air out and pulled water with my arms in an attempt to surface, but Stuart kept to his promise and kept me underwater. Even though I knew that I was safe, panic rushed to my head. I let out a bubbling cry and struggled harder, which made Stuart push my head down with his other hand. A small gulp of water made it to the back of my throat and it took everything out of me to not try and cough it out.

The lake faded around me, and I was back in the lap pool on the fifth floor, screaming for my life as Celestia pinned me to the bottom of the water. I forced myself to watch it happen again, before imagining her drowning Dylan in the same way. I continued to try and push myself upwards, my panicked heart slowing while my vision went out of focus. Eventually, I tore Stuart's grip off my neck and surfaced, coughing and hyperventilating.

"Oh, Ira." Stuart draped the thick towel over my shoulders as he helped me out of the lake. He rubbed up and down my arms in an attempt to warm me up. "There are other ways to train your lungs, you know?"

I dropped to my knees and hugged my shoulders tightly as I resisted the urge to cry. Stuart was right; that was an awful way to start the day, but for some strange reason I knew I needed that. After a while, the pounding against my skull faded to a dull ache, and I opened my eyes to laugh shakily. "Time?"

Stuart shook his head like he didn't know what to do with me. "Forty."

"You're the best." I beamed, making him look even more uncertain.

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